At least half of the institutions in the elite Russell Group of universities have GCSE entry requirements which appear to favour private school pupils.
Tes has found that universities are asking for relatively lower grades under IGCSEs than they are for the reformed GCSE.
With independent schools allowed to take the IGCSE but state schools prevented from doing so, the entry requirements give private school pupils a potential advantage over their state sector peers.
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One influential MP said the findings showed that “the odds are being stacked against state school pupils”, while a heads union said the practice was “extremely unfair” and universities were “effectively penalising” state pupils who have to take reformed GCSEs with numerical grades.
‘IGCSE’ is a term used as shorthand for a family of alternative key stage 4 qualifications that are provided by a number of exam boards.
Different grade structures are available for the qualification – the Pearson IGCSE uses the same 9-1 grade system as the reformed GCSE, but schools taking the Cambridge Assessment IGCSE can choose whether they want a numerical system or A* to G.
The 9-1 grades provide greater differentiation according to attainment but can't be precisely translated into the alphabetical system, which has just eight grades. Tes has found that one result is that many universities have relatively lower requirements for alphabetical grades.
For example, pupils in England who wish to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh need to have GCSEs or IGCSEs in biology, chemistry, English and maths at grade B or 6.
However, a student achieving a low B on the alphabetical scale might be graded as a 5 under the numerical scale.
This could mean that a private school pupil with IGCSE B grades in the four subjects could be offered a place, but a state school pupil with a string of 5s in the reformed GCSE would miss out - even thought they had actually achieved to the same standard.
Imperial College London’s website states that for the chemistry course, “all candidates must have a minimum English language qualification of a grade B / 6 at GCSE/IGCSE” – again potentially favouring private school pupils taking IGCSEs.
The same goes for the University of Liverpool, where a place on the psychology course requires GCSEs in maths and English at B or 6. A spokesperson for Liverpool confirmed that IGCSE grade requirements “mirror GCSE requirements”.
At the University of Manchester a B is again considered equivalent to a 6. Manchester's website says it considers IGCSEs as equivalent to GCSEs and "accepts them on a grade for grade basis".
The University of Newcastle also asks for a B or 6 in English for its accounting and finance course, and the University of Warwick requires a B or a 6 in English language GCSE or IGCSE for its economics course. The University of York requires the same grades in English language for medicine.
At University College London meanwhile, applicants for a maths degree need a grade C or 5 in English language and maths at GCSE or IGCSE. But the 4 grade is officially pegged to a low C, so this again could give an advantage to private school pupils with IGCSEs.
All of the eight universities above said that their requirements of a B/6 (or C/5 in the case of UCL) applied to IGCSEs as well as GCSEs.
However, the grading unfairness could be even more widespread. Tes found a further four Russell Group universities (King’s College London, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University of Nottingham and Queen Mary University of London) who use a B/6 equivalence for GCSE, but which did not respond to questions from Tes about whether this applied to IGCSEs.
If these institutions do ask for the same requirements for IGCSE, then it would mean that at least half of the 24 universities in the Russell Group have key stage 4 entry requirements which could favour private school pupils.
Lucy Powell, a Labour MP who sits on the Commons Education Select Committee and is a vocal critic of IGCSEs, told Tes the practice was “unacceptable”.
Ms Powell has argued that IGCSEs are easier than the reformed GCSE – a claim which the exam boards offering the qualification deny.
She told Tes: “The use of IGCSEs by independent schools and the weak response from the Department for Education and Ofqual to this practice is undermining public confidence in our exams system.
“This is further evidence that the odds are being stacked against state school pupils. It’s totally unacceptable that universities require higher grades from students taking tough new GCSEs over private school pupils sitting easier IGCSEs.
“Unregulated qualifications should not count for the same as state regulated qualifications in university admissions. This practice should be banned.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Universities are effectively penalising students taking numerical GCSEs if they are asking for a grade 6 while requiring a grade B for IGCSE students and this is clearly extremely unfair.
“We understand that there is a mismatch between the two systems and that a grade 5 is equivalent to a low B or a high C under the old system. But to respond to this by raising the bar for numerical GCSE students to a grade 6, which is the top of an old B, is the wrong way round. They should be setting their entrance requirements to ensure that every student who may have got a B under the old system has a fair crack of the whip.
“It has to be said that this is another product of the confusion caused by the decision of the government to meddle with the grading system.”